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Robot Baristas: how AI threatens Las Vegas service jobs

The soothing sounds of steaming milk and espresso shots rang through the air at the 2023 CES tech show in Las Vegas this week. But the barista carefully pouring intricate latte art was not a person - it was a robot powered by artificial intelligence.

Exhibits like this stir up worry among hospitality staff on the iconic Las Vegas Strip. They see innovations in AI and robotics as direct threats to their livelihoods.

"It is very scary because tomorrow is never promised," said Sahara hotel barista Roman Alejo, 34. "A lot of AI is coming into this world. It is very scary and very eye-opening to see how humans can think of replacing other humans."

Alejo's concerns reflect those of the wider Culinary Workers Union, which represents some 40,000 Las Vegas casino employees. The union nearly went on strike last year over technology anxieties and job security issues before ratifying new contracts.

"Technology was a strike issue and one of the very last issues to be resolved," said union leader Ted Pappageorge. He sees the rise of AI and robotics in hospitality as unprecedented.

From automated hotel check-ins to robot bartenders and baristas, the types of casino jobs potentially endangered in the next five years look starkly different. So the union focused negotiations on new protections for workers impacted by advancing tech.

The Culinary Workers Union Thinks Ahead

The new union contracts include provisions to help workers navigating job displacement from technology. Laid off staff would receive up to $2,000 in severance pay for each year worked. They also have the option to transfer internally to other departments.

"We had to develop new language that protected workers both from today's technology and technology that we don't even know is coming," Pappageorge explained.

Over 100 union members attended CES to get a glimpse of the very tech that could automate their jobs. On the exhibit floor, they saw delivery robots, massage bots, automated baristas, and autonomous restaurant concepts.

But most vendors claim jobs remain secure. "What we are doing is not replacing jobs. We are filling the need in the market," said Meng Wang, founder of robo-barista startup Artly Coffee.

A Matter of Customer Experience

Ultimately, the adoption of hospitality AI depends on customer reception, experts say. Las Vegas' reputation is built on world-class service and over-the-top experiences, so new tech requires careful integration.

"Vegas is a good place to test these things and see how customers react," said professor Bill Werner of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For now, robots handle back-of-house jobs or complement frontline staff. But ongoing advances threaten workers who don't directly serve patrons.

"When the industry doesn't have to worry about the effect on customer service, then that takes a lot of the risk out of automation," Werner explained.

Barista Alejo acknowledges innovation is inevitable, though it remains "scary." Other Culinary Union members share his unease even as they recognize the hospitality sector must evolve.

With the rise of robot baristas and their AI-enabled peers, the future of Las Vegas' quintessential service jobs hangs in the balance. But if the recent negotiations prove anything, the union won't let new tech displace real workers without a fight.

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